How the Market is Reacting to SKAdNetwork and Apple’s Privacy and IDFA Changes

Note: As of January 28th, 2021, Apple has changed its policies regarding attribution on iOS 14. Read about that update and Branch’s latest stance here

If you work in mobile marketing, product, or advertising in a region where iOS is widely adopted, your world changed on June 22nd. If you are looking for a quick recap of what happened, we wrote a few blog posts on what changed in iOS14, why the IDFA matters, Apple’s proposed SKAdNetwork attribution alternative and the limitations of SKAdNetwork. With these industry changes, we wanted to bring mobile leaders together to exchange best practices and discuss how mobile brands are preparing.

For context, as COVID hit we moved many of our in-person events to virtual Roundtables with leaders in different verticals. We organized over 30 as a company, and I moderated eight myself and truly enjoyed them — I found myself not talking much and really being a facilitator for groups to share their best practices on topics like engagement, acquisition, COVID-related changes and more. When Apple announced the iOS14 changes, we thought it would be a good time to get leaders back together to discuss the changes, but we found something interesting: these IDFA roundtables were different than anything we’d done before in both the amount of interest we received (we ended up organizing 14 roundtables total just on this topic worldwide) and the way they ran.

So, after discussions with 300 mobile professionals, leaders, marketers, PMs, and a few engineers, this is what we learned.

1. There are a lot more questions than opinions.

Unlike other roundtables where everyone spoke and shared, these roundtables were centered around questions. The other moderators and I found ourselves speaking a lot more than any of our previous roundtables. Questions ranged from basic ones, to more advanced topics like how Branch will handle the changes Apple introduced.

The Branch Take: We compiled some of the most frequently asked questions on IDFA in this post a while back, and just launched a new Preparing for iOS 14 resource hub. Our overall stance is that we will fully support SKAdNetwork and build a solution to see results in the Branch dashboard, but in addition, we will continue to offer linking and granular device-level attribution through our predictive modeling algorithm powered by our link graph.

2. Very few apps will consider actually showing the IDFA Opt-In screens.

Basically, the consensus is the IDFA is for all intents and purposes going away. Unlike some of the articles I saw online from other attribution providers, it seems the actual publishers and advertisers are mostly giving up on even trying to access IDFAs. The biggest challenge here is that to be able to use the IDFA, you need two-sided opt-ins: both from the publisher app where the ad is shown, and in the advertiser app that got installed from that ad. While the ad networks and bigger publishers are thinking of ways to enable the ask (in some cases by promising fewer or better ads — the new Twitter modal is a test in that direction) or A/B testing many variations on how to make the ask, smaller apps that would actually need to show the modal after the install are pretty reluctant to do so. They feel the potential damage to the customer relationship that modal can have is not worth the potential (low) opt-in rate. As an example, a well known real estate app mentioned:

“As a platform not supported by ads, our goal is to impact the user experience as little as possible. In our perspective, everything that adds friction is going to be a negative. Login gating is not an option, including additional prompts in onboarding isn’t an option either. We have resigned ourselves to the world where we no longer have access to IDFA.”

The Branch Take: We are preparing for a world without IDFA, but will continue to use the IDFA in cases where we get it to give our customers deterministic attribution and guaranteed deferred deep link matching.

3. The market’s reaction to SKAdNetwork is full of frustration and worry.

Most publishers feel that SKAdNetwork is not nearly enough, and the disappearance of the IDFA will severely hurt their attribution efforts. The challenges our attendees mentioned are that SKAdNetwork is simplistic and only addresses a naive perspective on attribution at the moment. In particular, almost everyone had major concerns about the severe limitations on post-install event tracking, the loss of real-time data to use for campaign optimization, and the requirement for publishers to make code updates and republish the app to test ads from a new network. The overall consensus is that the likely outcome will be people spending mostly with the big guys — Apple, FB, Google. Even then, for many companies with long sales cycles (ex. real estate, high-end fashion, etc.), SKAdNetwork will be completely useless due to its short attribution window and limited conversion tracking capabilities. One marketer stated:

“It feels crazy, feels like there’s a conflict of interest where Apple determines attribution but also has an ad network product. Lack of info on SKAdNetwork adds to our uneasiness.”

Another partner said:

“SKAdnetwork does little for the ecosystem other than essentially breaking it. Customers want granular, actionable data that they can use to make smart decisions. Aggregate data with reporting delays from Apple is not as actionable for us”

The Branch Take: We are integrating with SKAdNetwork to enable our customers to see results in the Branch dashboard, but understand the frustrations many feel in its limitations. We will continue to offer predictive modeling and attribution powered by our link graph to help our customers and partners continue to attribute their marketing efforts more granularly when it comes to ads and beyond ads.

4. The path forward.

The majority of the market is looking at building or using tools like Branch to leverage predictive and probabilistic modeling algorithms to retain more granular attribution. Some are working on ways to optimize for more registration/first-party data metrics instead of simply tracking installs, and some are hoping to mix IDFA opt-in with SKAdNetwork data to try and “triangulate” performance.

The Branch Take: We are working with the ecosystem to continue to help marketers measure performance while providing succinct solutions that work within Apple’s new privacy framework. As long as you use Branch links in your ads and other marketing campaigns, Branch will continue offering attribution based on our advanced predictive modeling engine. More on our iOS14 approach here

The roundtables taught us that the path between now and September 14 is still pretty unclear to a lot of people, which is worrying for most. The changes Apple made will clearly have big implications for the long-term shape of the market. No one really knows for sure, but most believe we are likely to see a consolidation of spend to the big networks, more investment on external predictive modeling attribution tools like Branch and on internal data science and triangulation, more spend on web acquisition, and more investment in web-to-app tools.

The world of mobile is a dynamic and fast-moving place. That’s what first drew me to it many years ago, and it’s why I still wake up every morning, excited to get to work. Sometimes (like right now), those changes mean we all need to rebuild the plane while still flying it. But that’s why Branch exists — we’re your mobile growth partner, and we’re always here to help.